May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
I have to admit, probably the two hardest parts of writing a sermon are beginning it and ending it. At the ending, a preacher wants to leave folks with something inspirational, thought provoking and life-impacting. At the beginning, the preacher wants to grab the attention of his or her congregation in a way that they will pay attention to how the message fits into their own life stories.
As the evangelist, John, begins to write his sermon based on Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection, he does something rather unique… he plagiarizes! Think about it – if I was to begin a sermon by saying, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” most of you would probably appreciate my use of the beginning of Charles Dickens' novel, “A Tale of Two Cities”, and depending how I proceeded, I may be able to continue to build upon that initial thought.
John's gospel sermon starts like this, “In the beginning...” Does that sound familiar? Look up Genesis 1:1 and you find these words, “In the beginning…” I know that they are only three words, but any good Jewish or Christian person of John's day would have recognized what John was doing – he was hearkening people back to the beginning of all creation. He was taking us back to the onset of the world's history. It is a bit audacious, and yet it is effective, for instead of describing the details of angels, shepherds, magi and the babe in a manger, John is describing the significance of this tiny child's birth upon the world. And that significance is a new beginning – THE new beginning of history, of humanity, and of the way that God will be involved in the creation.
John's story about Jesus is designed from beginning to end not just to tell us the facts of his life, but to evoke for us, the living, breathing promise of a new beginning to all of human history in and through the incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ. That's why he patterns his opening after Genesis. That's why he talks about seven signs (what we often call miracles) in his Gospel sermon – turning water into wine, healing the royal official's son, healing a paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead; that's why John culminates his sermon with the eighth sign of resurrection as the eighth day, the start of a new week, a new chapter, a new epoch. That's why only in John's Gospel does the resurrection happen in a garden, to remind us of the Garden of Eden so that we might see the resurrection as the new creation. It's an ending that cannot help be leave hearers inspired, their thoughts provoked and their lives impacted.
This is a very appropriate reading and message for us on this second Sunday of Christmas, and third day of the new year when we are all yearning to hear a trustworthy promise for something new and filled with light as we end a year filled with so much darkness in regards to terror acts and threats, the plight of so many refugees displaced from their homes, violence and shootings that seemed to happen at an unprecedented pace, tension between races, nationalities and religions, and the continuous everyday struggle to not only survive in this life, but to make a positive mark on our families and our communities. We were made aware of the very real presence of evil in the world this last year, and many people wonder if there is any hope for us as a result.
That is why John shares with us his borrowed language of creation and beginnings. In the beginning… And the first thing that John says about this new beginning is that God comes to us as the Word, the logos – meaning that Jesus captures the very mind, design and purpose of God. But more literally, Jesus as God's Word made flesh means that all that God has to say to us is embodied in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God is doing something new, and the signs that he will perform through Jesus – including and especially the resurrection – are ways that God is speaking to all of humanity to point out his promise of eternal life and to give signs pointing to the fulfillment of that promise.
The Reformers used to speak of the “Deus loquens”, which means, “the speaking God.” Loquens is the Latin root of our word “eloquent,” and I think it captures things nicely: Jesus is God at God's most eloquent, speaking as clearly as possible of God's profound love for us. This, as John reminds us, is new. Indeed, amid the darkness of scarcity, illness, blindness, even death itself, Jesus is God's word of abundance, healing, light, sight and life! This new, tangible, enfleshed Word opens up the possibility of a new relationship with God. John testifies that, “No one has ever seen God.” That's something most of us don't have to be reminded of. When tragedy strikes, when disappointment crushes us down, when hope and happiness flee, we often wonder where God is and sense the palpable absence of God far more profoundly than we've perhaps ever experienced God's presence. There's a reason, after all, that the old insurance policies promised to protect homes from “fire, flood, storm, tornado, and other acts of God”! An unknown God is capricious, untrustworthy, and ultimately fearsome.
And this is why Jesus – the One nestled in the very bosom of God – comes as God's Word made flesh. To reveal to us God's parental love. And not just to reveal, but to speak through word and deed as eloquently as possible that there is nothing God wouldn't do, nowhere God won't go, nothing God won't endure – even the loss of God's beloved Son – that we might know we are God's beloved children, worthy of dignity, honor, and love.
This is the beginning of a new year for this world, and how appropriate it is to hear the beginning of the story of Jesus, God's word made flesh, in the manner that John begins it, which hearkens us back to the beginning of all creation. In these words is found the heart of John's Gospel message – that in Jesus we receive a love letter written in human flesh and blood from the God who created the vast cosmos in the beginning, continues to sustain the universe even now, and values each and every one of us more than we can possible imagine. And that Word… well, it creates all things new, taking our resolutions and hopes as well as our fears and disappointments and binding them together in the promises of God.
I hope that you pay attention to the words of the song that we will sing during the offering. The tune from our red hymnal is not as familiar, so I had the version from the blue With One Voice supplement printed in the bulletin. The tune is Londonderry Air, which you probably recognize from the song, “Oh Danny Boy.” O Christ The Same, written by Timothy Dudley-Smith, reminds us that as much as the world is changing and as up and down as our lives will be this coming year, Christ is the same – always loving, healing, providing, and giving life to all of God's creation. The final line in each verse reminds us of how we are to respond to this wonderful good news: “we bring our thanks for all our yesterdays, for this the present hour, and for all that is to be.” May this new year begin as God intends it to begin, with the promise of peace, joy and love to sustain us all in whatever the next year will bring. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.